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Chapter 21: Recognition

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« on: May 27, 2023, 10:59:31 am »

FEWSTER came bustling in at the gate a few minutes later. Maddick had left the front door open, and he walked straight into the hall, calling for Preece as he crossed the threshold. But Preece, at a sign from the detective, made no answer, and Fewster turned sharp into the parlour. The first man he set eyes on, standing right in front of him, was Parkapple.

I don’t know why, but, quite apart from the discovery of the steel bar, I had a queer notion that something was going to happen when Fewster arrived---something out of the common. He couldn’t see Macpherson, or Trace, or Preece, or Maddick, as he walked in; they were behind him, at the other side of the room. He could have seen me; I stood a little to Parkapple’s right, between them. But he never looked at me; his eyes, starting, fixed themselves full on the little detective. And his big, flabby face turned white---a nasty, pasty white, and he caught his breath in a sudden gasp and half lifted a hand towards his heart. I realised then that Fewster knew Parkapple, and, glancing round, I saw that Parkapple knew Fewster.

I think the other three saw that too, and for a second there was a queer, dead silence. Then Parkapple spoke---and his voice was as hard and dry as ever human voice can be.

“Oh,” he said. “Ah! So we meet again, Mr.---Fewster, eh? Just so! Some time since we last met, I think?”

It seemed like a full minute, or more, before Fewster replied. And before he spoke, he dropped into the nearest chair---suddenly. His voice was husky when it came, and he tapped his chest.

“I’ll sit, if you please,” he muttered. “Hurried here!---and I have---heart trouble. Some time, as you say, Mr. Parkapple---considerable time, sir.”

Young as I was, I was sharp enough of wit to detect two dominant notes in Fewster’s tones. One was obsequiousness, the other fear. And his actions showed that he was frightened. The big bandanna handkerchief of the sort that he always carried came out of his tail-pocket, and he mopped his pasty face; when he put the handkerchief away, his small eyes glanced furtively at the men standing on the other side of the room. He saw that they were all watching him, and I could see him shrink.

“Yes, but not so long that one can’t recall everything about it,” remarked Parkapple, still more dryly. “Um!---but I want to ask a few questions about recent events, Mr. Fewster. I understand that you knew this man Chissick, who’s been murdered?”

“Yes, sir---yes, I knew Chissick,” answered Fewster hurriedly. “Oh yes!”

“Known him long?” asked the detective.

“I was here when he came here, Mr. Parkapple---resident here.”

“Just so---but had you known him before that?”

I could see that Fewster did not want to reply to that question. I could see, too, that he felt he’d got to. His answer came as hurriedly as before.

“Yes, yes, sir---yes, Mr. Parkapple, I had!”

“So it was a renewing of old acquaintance, eh, when Chissick came here?” suggested Parkapple. “Or---perhaps---it was due to you that he came? Was that it?”

“Well, sir, well---I certainly recommended this place to him---yes, you may say that was it, Mr. Parkapple---yes, I told him of the place, sir.”

“As a likely sort of spot for a man to---retire to, eh?” observed Parkapple. “I see!”

“There was the chance of doing a little business in his line, sir,” said Fewster. “That was the reason of my recommendation. I met him, accidentally, at Brighton. He wanted to do a bit of speculative building. I told him of this district. He came here. Nothing improper in that, I hope, sir?”

“No, I shouldn’t think so,” agreed Parkapple. “And, of course, you were very friendly after he came.”

“We were friends, sir---we were friends. Both being bachelor-men, you see----”

“When did you see Chissick alive last?” asked Parkapple suddenly.

“The evening before his death, between six and seven o’clock,” answered Fewster, with readiness. “Here!---in this room. I came to borrow a book he’d promised to lend. He mentioned that he was going to Brighton for the week-end. He often did that, Mr. Parkapple: he’d relatives there.”

“Well, you say it was owing to you that he came here---to do a bit of building. I suppose you sometimes discussed his doings?”

“Oh, in just the ordinary way, Mr. Parkapple---just the ordinary way. He might tell me of his ideas, and I might pass a remark on them---no more than that, sir.”

It seemed to me that Fewster’s shade of fear was passing off. His voice was growing steadier, and the colour was coming back to his face. And when Parkapple put the next question to him he replied more readily than ever.

“When you were in here, then, the evening before his death, did he say anything to you about that latest job of his---building those bungalows on the hill-side?”

“No, sir! He never mentioned that job to me on that occasion.”

Parkapple hesitated a moment; then he walked over to the bureau, lifted the sheet of paper, and taking up the steel bar, held it out to Fewster.

“Do you recognise that implement?” he asked.

Fewster’s face paled again as he looked at the thing and saw what was on it. But he answered as readily as before.

“Yes---it’s mine!” he said, “Chissick borrowed it from me a day or two before his death. He came and fetched it himself---took it with his own hands out of my tool-house; he said he wanted it to prise off the lid of a packing-case. The evening I called here---the evening before his death---I saw that tool; it was lying on that side-table there. He mentioned that he’d done with it, and I should have taken it with me, there and then, only I wasn’t going home; I was just setting out for a walk.”

Parkapple put the tool back in the bureau and closed the drawer.

“There’s very little doubt that that’s the thing with which Chissick was murdered,” he remarked. “If it was still lying on that side-table---where, you say, you saw it the night before---on that Saturday morning, the murderer must have picked it up as he followed Chissick from this room on their way to the back door. But come outside, Mr. Fewster. Preece, come with us.”

The three men went out; we heard them go to the back of the house. They were not long there; presently we saw them going down the front garden. Near the gate they paused, and for some time stood talking together. Fewster seemed to be explaining something to the other two. After a time, it was evident from their movements that all three came to some understanding. Fewster, looking much relieved, I thought, went away, and Parkapple and Preece came back to the house. The detective looked preoccupied; it was very clear that what had happened had given him a good deal to reflect upon.

“I think that’s all we can do this afternoon,” he said, as soon as he and Preece re-entered the parlour. “Of course, you’ll all keep everything that’s taken place to yourselves. Maddick, be careful not to say a word to anybody in the village! Well---lock the place up, Preece.”

We all went away soon after that, Parkapple carrying the steel bar with him, carefully wrapped in paper. Outside the gate, Macpherson, who had been itching to speak for some time, nodded his head towards Fewster’s house, the gables and chimneys of which we could see over his orchard.

“You’ll be knowing yon man Fewster, I’m thinking, Mr. Parkapple?” he said, with a meaning glance. “You’ll ha’ set your eyes on him before?”

But Parkapple was not to be drawn.

“I’ve known and have set eyes on a sight of my fellow-creatures in my time, Mr. Macpherson!” said he. “And it wouldn’t do for me to be answering questions about them. Well---thank you for your assistance, gentlemen.”

He turned away towards the railway station, and Preece with him, and the rest of us went homeward. Macpherson showed signs of feeling affronted.

“Yon’s a man o’ the true-blood official sort,” he muttered. “He gets what he can out of a body, and tells nothing in return! Where’ll he be away to now, I wonder?”

“He’ll be off to see the local police authorities, of course,” said Trace. “To show them that bit of steel. It’s a highly important discovery, that!”

“Aye, it’s important!” agreed Macpherson. “But I’m thinking there’s more important matters than yon to consider. When you take into account the fact that yon bit o’ cold iron battered the life out of a living man, and that it’s the property of Fewster, and that Fewster confessed it was his, there’s a question I should have required a straight answer to before I’d let Fewster out o’ my sight!”

“What?” enquired Trace.

“Oh, just this. I should ha’ requested Fewster to give a circumstantial account of all his movements that Saturday, from his rising up to his lying down, and I should ha’ wanted proof o’ the truth of whatever he said in reply,” answered Macpherson. “Aye, just that! But I suppose detective men have other notions.”

“What you mean, Macpherson, is that you’d have made Fewster prove an alibi before you’d have let him go!” said Trace, with a laugh. “I should say---from what I’ve seen of Parkapple---that that’s just what Parkapple did! When they were all there talking at the gate, Parkapple no doubt made Fewster tell his doings that Saturday.”

“Man! Fewster could ha’ told ’em as many lies as there’s mites in an old cheese!” exclaimed Macpherson. “I said---proof! D’ye mind the look Fewster gave Parkapple when he walked into yon parlour? I do! D’ye recall the look Parkapple gave Fewster? Losh, man, I see it now! Those two had met!---aye, and where? And if you want my opinion, it is that when they last met, Fewster was in the dock, and Parkapple in the witness-box! Aye!”

“What---another revelation?” said Trace. “Come!”

“I’m telling you,” persisted Macpherson. “Didn’t you notice how very subservient yon big, fat man, a retired gentleman, as he’s considered hereabouts, was to the detective, calling him sir and mister at every verse-end? Man!---yon Parkapple knows all about Fewster! Aye, it reminded me o’ what I’ve seen, and you’ve seen yourself, Captain, at assizes and quarter-sessions, when the poor fellow in the dock’s been found guilty---you know what happens then! There’s a man appears with a bundle o’ papers, few sometimes, and a many at other times, and reads out a record o’ past misdeeds---previous convictions. Oh, man!---I’m afeard Parkapple recognised a naughty man in Fewster!”

I don’t know what Trace was going to reply to this. We had just turned into the village street then, and our attention was diverted from the subject in hand by the sight of a group of people, mainly old men, women, and children, gathered in front of Sergeant Preece’s cottage. They seemed to be listening to voluble speech on the part of a woman who, holding two children by the hands, one on either side of her, was addressing herself to all and sundry. She was an ill-dressed, haggard-looking creature, of a shrewish aspect, and her voice was strident and insistent. But at sight of us she grew silent, and Mrs. Preece, the sergeant’s wife, who was standing at her garden gate, pushed her way through the throng and approached us.

“Have you seen anything of my husband, Captain Trace?” she asked. “Do you know where he is, sir?”

“I believe he’s gone into town with Mr. Parkapple,” replied Trace. “What is it, Mrs. Preece? Something gone wrong?”

Mrs. Preece indicated the complaining woman.

“It’s Mrs. Halkin,” she answered. “She’s come down to the village to say that her husband’s disappeared. He went out---when was it, Mrs. Halkin?”

“Night before last!” said Mrs. Halkin angrily. “Without a word to me, either. I’ve no idea where he was going, nor why! All I know is, he’s never come back, and there I am left with these here childer up in that cottage, all alone, and what I say is, that what’s the use of having policemen about if they can’t find a woman’s husband, and----”

Macpherson laid a hand on Mrs. Halkin’s shoulder.

“Aye, just so!” he said soothingly. “And now let’s be hearing all about it, my lass! What time o’ night was it when Halkin went out?”

We heard the whole story; the rest of the folk listened, open-mouthed, for certainly the second, and perhaps the third time. There was not a great deal to tell, though Mrs. Halkin made a great deal of it. That day was a Wednesday. On the Monday night, Halkin, after having his supper at eight o’clock, had gone out of the house, and had never returned to it.

“Was it a habit of his to go out o’ nights, now?” asked Macpherson. “Maybe he’d come down to the public and take his glass?”

But there an old man, who supported himself on two sticks, raised his voice.

“No, master, he wasn’t a man for the public, wasn’t Halkin! You’d see him there now and then, but very seldom. No---not a sociable man, he wasn’t.”

“Well, did he go out o’ nights?” enquired Macpherson, again turning to Mrs. Halkin. “If that was his habit----”

But Mrs. Halkin suddenly froze into silence---on that question, at any rate. Muttering something about the police again, and that Halkin would have to be found, she dragged off her children and disappeared towards the hill-side, taking no further notice of Macpherson and his questions. The old man who had volunteered information as to Halkin’s lack of sociability volunteered more.

“Her isn’t goin’ to say no more on that there p’int, master,” he remarked with a sly look. “Her don’t want no inconvaynient questions. Halkin!---ah, there be them as do know a bit about he! Halkin, he be a poacher! mighty clever hand he be at that, Halkin! I misdoubt he’ve come to some mishap in they woods. For there ’tis---he be a poacher!”

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